In a previous blog, I reviewed Karl Popper’s critique of Plato and Hegel, which we might call his “critique of idealistic historicism.” In this blog, I deal with his critique of Marx, which we might call his “critique of dialectical materialistic historicism.” As Popper analyzes Plato, Hegel, and Marx, he engages in a sustained critique of their respective “historicisms,” which means their shared tendency to suppose that there are “laws of history” or “forces of history” that determine national and personal destiny, as opposed to human history being determined by the concrete choices made by human beings. Popper regards their work as essentially authoritarian, leading to brutal and degrading regimes. Against the alleged historicism of these figures, Popper defends the importance of human decision-making and human action in creating history. In his view, history is “open.” This openness argues for an open society structured in such a way as to allow the maximum degree of freedom for individuals to choose their future rationally.
Critique of Historical Determinism
In Popper’s view, historical determinism refers to any theoretical understanding that human history can be predetermined by any set of ideas, material, idealistic, religious, or otherwise. Plato and Hegel represented an idealistic understanding. Marx represents a materialistic understanding. For Marx, the clue to human political history consists of socio-economic forces operating in human history.  According to Popper, Marx’s view is based on a kind of institutionalist view:
Against the doctrine of psychologism, the defenders of an autonomous sociology can advance institutionalist views. They can point out, first of all, that no action can ever be explained, by motive alone; if motives (or any other psychological or behavioral concepts) are to be used in the explanation, then they must be supplemented by reference to the general situation, and especially to the environment. In the case of human actions, this environment is very largely of a social nature; those are actions cannot be explained that reference to our social environment, to social institutions, and their manner of functioning. 
This view can be contrasted with a psychological view of human history, a view Popper believes was held by John Stewart Mill, the greatest of the Utilitarian thinkers. In the psychological view of history, all human actions and human society flow from human nature itself and are, in the end, reducible to human nature and its characteristics.  This view, has a long history in Western thought; for example, it is evident in Plato’s view that the right order of society is found when society’s order conforms to the right ordering of the human soul, mind, body, and spirit. It is unsurprising that Popper, who rejects Plato, also rejects the notion that human society in some way is to reflect human personality.
Hegel held that ideas are the motivating force behind history. Marx believes that economic forces are the fundamental driving forces behind human history, and these forces determine the kinds of ideas that are held at any given moment. Ideas are, therefore, a secondary “epiphenomena” created by material forces. Popper agrees with this analysis in a limited way. He agrees that material forces are primary. He agrees that economic forces are important and fundamental in some way but disagrees with the kind of “economic fundamentalism” that Marx embraced. 
However, unlike Marx, whose theories required a socialist revolution in the material world, Popper believes in the ability of sound ideas to influence and cause dramatic and positive change in society and social institutions.  Popper accepts, with qualification, Marx’s emphasis on class struggle but denies that it is the sole force in human history. In particular, Popper rejects the notion that human history is faced with a choice between capitalism and socialism. The development of modern Western social democracy refutes Marx’s prediction of a dramatic choice between only two alternative forms of social organization. 
Limits on Revolutionary Violence
Popper rejects the modern fascination with power as the source of political life and evolution. Hegel, for example, saw war as the fundamental force in history. This notion resulted in two destructive world wars. Marx substitutes class conflict and economic struggle as the fundamental sources of power that propel history.  The result was the devastatingly harmful revolutions seen in Russia, China, and other places during the 20th Century.
Popper rejects not just the inevitability of violent revolution but also the general desirability of revolutionary violence. He views this aspect of Marxism as its most harmful contribution to political theory, a conclusion that the sufferings of the 20th Century bear out in practice.  In Popper’s view, revolutionary violence, which parts of ancient and Christian thought permit, must be directed towards the overthrowing of a totalitarian state and its replacement with democratic institutions. Beyond this, only the defense of democratic institutions can justify violence. 
In condemning Marxism and its violent ideology, Popper speaks words of continuing importance today:
I do not believe that we should ever attempt to achieve more than that (ie, democratic institutions) by violent means. For I believe that such an attempt would involve the risk of destroying all prospects of reasonable reform. The prolonged use of violence may lead in the end to the loss of freedom, since it is liable to bring about, not a dispassionate rule of reason, but the rule of the strongman. A violent revolution which tries to attempt more than the destruction of tyranny, is at least as likely to bring about another tyranny, as it is likely to achieve its real aims. 
In recent years, we have seen the danger of violence as a chosen instrument of political change and the dysfunctional consequences it breeds. The antics of “revolutionary groups” right and left have played a significant part in weakening our social fabric and institutions. interestingly, some of these groups have been financed by those who claim to follow Popper’s ideas.
Critique of Marx as a False Prophet
In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper classifies Marx as a false prophet:
…Marx was, I believe, a false, prophet. He was a prophet of the course of history, and his prophecies did not come true; but this is not my main accusation. It is much more important that he misled scores of intelligent people into believing that historical prophecy is the scientific way of approaching social problems. Marx is responsible for the devastating influence of the historicist method of thought within the ranks of those who wish to advance the cause of the open society. 
This observation of Popper is crucial in understanding the development of critical theory and Marxist-inspired political thought since World War II. While others, such as the members of the Frankfort School and adherents of critical theory, took a different view, Popper’s notion was that the events of the 20th Century had proven Marx wrong in his predictions and cast doubt upon the viability of his theories.
Before the Russian Revolution, European intellectuals were massively influenced by Marx and dialectical materialism. Many expected the cataclysmic end to capitalism and the establishment of communist states in Europe. Initially, what transpired in Russia after the revolution of 1917 was the construction of a totalitarian terror state, the furthest thing from what intellectuals expected. Secondly, after the First World War, the expected Communist revolution did not occur. Germany, in particular, rejected a communist-style revolution and attempted a liberal democracy. This attempt failed and ended in the terror of the Nazi regime and the destruction of Germany in the Second World War. After the war, Germany went back to a social democratic polity. Both these failures cast doubt upon Marx’s analysis of history.
Marx’s critique of capitalism was based upon his belief that it results in (i) an increase in productivity that (ii) concentrates wealth in fewer and fewer hands, with (iii) the final result the workers revolt against their slavery and replace the capitalist system with a communist society in which there is only one class. Popper does not believe that this analysis can be correct, for the issue of class is not an economic issue.  Every society has classes, including communist societies. Furthermore, Marx assumes that there can only be one class in the future evolution of society. In reality, we cannot know that this is true, nor can we know the truth or falsity of any number of potential ends to capitalism. There are many possibilities. 
In fact, from the standpoint of the early 21st Century, we can know that Marx was wrong in his analysis. The kind of Laisse-faire capitalism experienced in the 19th century has been replaced everywhere by some form of social democracy in which various social welfare programs ameliorate and soften the impact of competition and the accumulation of wealth by some.  In fact, the working classes instead of living in endless misery were able in places like the United States, Germany, South Korea, and Japan to attain the highest standard of living ever achieved in their own society or any other societies in human history.
Marx’s Faulty Critique of the Legal and Social System
Given Marxist materialism and its emphasis on class conflict, Marx was bound to resist the idea that persuasion, logical argumentation, legal change, and similar alterations of a particular society were likely to create social peace. Instead, Marx advocated a revolutionary ideology that undermines the rule of law.  As mentioned in an earlier blog when discussing Marx, his analysis of society was profoundly affected by his own social location, particularly the state of the industrial revolution during his time. There’s no question but that, immediately following the Industrial Revolution, the condition of the working class was desperate and society was being governed by a set of laws and principles at odds with ameliorating the suffering of human beings trapped in inhuman working conditions. Political institutions were slow to adapt to the changes required in law and social policy. Popper gives many important and sobering examples in his analysis of Marx and his thought. 
Popper believes that this feature of Marxism constitutes its fatal flaw. Marx’s disparagement of the potential of political power to overcome economic forces was proven false by the immense achievements of social democracy as it slowly but surely overcame the flaws of laisse-faire capitalism with a series of actions related to working hours, conditions, various forms of social insurance, old age protection and a host of achievements. 
Popper’s Pragmatic Incrementalism
Popper’s opposition to historicism is fundamental to his antipathy towards utopian social engineering (Marxian or otherwise). He opposes vast and unverifiable attempts to fundamentally restructure society based on the theoretical ideas of experts and the resultant social planning. In his view, such programs are fundamentally irrational and impossible since scientifically testing such plans is pragmatically impossible. “When the planners’ actions fail—as Popper thinks is inevitably the case with human interventions in society—to achieve their predicted results, they have no method for determining what went wrong with their plan. This lack of testability, in turn, means there is no way for the utopian engineers to improve their plans.”  This insight explains the continued failure under Socialist and Communist regimes of all kinds of “five-year” and other plans. Popper’s own policy preference is that of piecemeal reform, as he clearly states:
And it is a fact that my social theory (which favors gradual and piecemeal reform, reform controlled by a critical comparison between expected and achieved results) contrasts strongly with my theory of method, which happens to be a theory of scientific and intellectual revolutions. 
Interestingly, given the radical actions of some of his more famous followers, Popper is an incrementalist, believing that social change should be undertaken slowly, incrementally, and with sound reasoning behind modifications. Moreover, his scientific outlook and a strong sense of fallibility lend themselves to the view that social ideas, such as Marxism or Hegelianism, when proven false, should be abandoned and modified if proven limited.
Conclusion: Popper’s Critique of the Frankfort School
In 1960 and thereafter, Popper engaged in discussion with members of the Frankfort School (Adorno and Habermas). Popper was asked to begin the program with a set of theses, which he did in the form of twenty-seven propositions. The views were then discussed, but only a few in analytical detail. Later, the entire discussion was published giving Popper the first and last words:
I was and I still am very sorry about this. But having been invited to speak about ‘The Logic of the Social Sciences’ 1 did not go out of my way to attack Adorno and the ‘dialectical’ school of Frankfurt (Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, et al.) which I never regarded as important, unless perhaps from a political point of view, and in 1960 I was not even aware of the political influence of this school. Although today I should not hesitate to describe this influence by such terms as ‘irrationalist’ and ‘intelligence-destroying’, I could never take their methodology (whatever that may mean) seriously from either an intellectual or
a scholarly point of view. 
Popper views the so-called Frankfort School as irrational and philosophically undefendable. Yet, in his response to his critics, Popper speaks of the kind of revolution that he believes to be sustainable and valuable:
If the method of rational critical discussion should establish itself, then this should make the use of violence obsolete: critical reason is the only alternative to violence so far discovered. It seems to me clear that it is the obvious duty of all intellectuals to work for this revolution-for the replacement of the eliminative function of violence by the eliminative function of rational criticism. But in order to work for this end, one has to train ones-self constantly to write and to speak in clear and simple language. Every thought should be formulated as clearly and simply as possible. This can only be achieved by hard work. 
I cannot say if I will do another week on Popper. The Open Society and its Enemies is a huge undertaking, with many important insights. Some of these insights are in areas not germane to the fundamental purpose of this series of blogs. On the other hand, it is impossible to summarize so vast an intellectual undertaking as Popper undertakes in The Open Society and its Enemies in only two installments.
In the end, I have been much enriched by reading Popper. He is not an easy writer to digest, nor is he necessarily consistent in a simplistic way. His analysis is penetrating, though sometimes polemic to a degree that distracts from his main points. Nevertheless, the attempt to follow his reasoning is productive.
Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved
 Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 301.
 Id, at 302.
 Id, at 298-299.
 Id, at 317. In the last blog, I mentioned that Popper appears to be a materialist who views material forces as fundamental. However, he does not believe that ideas are unimportant, as will be seen. Popper’s work is relatively unimpacted by the developments in semiotics, information theory, and quantum physics that drive my analysis in other blogs.
 Id, at 319.
 Id, at 349, 357.
 Id, at 321.
 Id, at 359.
 Id, at 360.
 Id, at 294
 Id, at 348.
 Id, at 350-351.
 Id, at 327.
 Id, at 327-330.
 Id, at 334-335.
 Karl Popper “Reason or Revolution” in The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology: Adorno, Albert, Dhrendorf, Habermas, Pilot and Popper tr. Glyn Adey I David Frisby (London, ENG: Heiemann 1969, 1977), 291,
 Id, at 289.
 Id, at 292.